London (AP) – From Hollywood to Broadway, the entertainment industry is using its star power and financial muscle to raise a storm of protest over the anti-gay legislation in Russia that is battering the image of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein, British writer-actor Stephen Fry and `Star Trek’ actor George Takei are among those who have publicly condemned the new law, fueling an uproar that is overshadowing preparations for the Olympics scheduled to be held from Feb. 7 to 23, 2014.
With stars and activists using their high-profile platform to bring the issue to global attention, the gay rights crackdown in Russia has exploded into a hot-button controversy that is challenging Olympic leaders like no other since the protests over Tibet and human rights before the 2008 Games in Beijing.
President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Olympic athletes such as Greg Louganis have also denounced the law that prohibits the spread of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among minors.
The law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, imposes fines and up to 15 days in prison for violators. Hefty fines are levied for holding gay pride rallies. Foreigners can be deported.
Whether Putin is listening to the outcry is unclear, but the backlash has even triggered calls for a boycott of the games that he was instrumental in securing for Russia.
Obama and Cameron have both ruled out a boycott because it would penalize the athletes who have trained for years to compete. The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games are widely viewed as failures.
“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kinds of attitudes that we’re seeing here,” Obama said Friday. “If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker.”
Cameron echoed Obama on August 10, saying, “I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”
In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee is coming under pressure to take a tougher line and demand that Russia respect the Olympic Charter’s rules against discrimination.
One senior IOC member even suggested taking the games away from Russia if no solution is found.
“They have accepted the words of the Olympic Charter and the host city contract, so either they respect it or we have to say goodbye to them,” Gerhard Heiberg of Norway told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Heiberg, who organized the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and chairs the IOC marketing commission, said the IOC should stay out of domestic Russian politics but must be firm on what happens during the Sochi Games.
“This is a very important principle and we have to stick to that,” he said. “We cannot start giving in. Let’s wait and see. Either they accept or maybe we go somewhere else if worse comes to worse. I don’t think it will come to that.”
Heiberg acknowledged that the possibility of postponing the games or moving them elsewhere at short notice is remote. It takes years of preparations for a city to stage an Olympics. With the Sochi Games less than six months away, the issue shows no sign of abating.
The Sochi Olympics, the first Winter Games to be held in Russia, are a pet project of Putin. It was his personal appearance and speech – partly in English – at the IOC meeting in Guatemala City in 2007 that helped swing the vote in Sochi’s favor.
IOC officials believe that Putin and Russia have so much at stake in the Sochi Games that they will do everything it takes to make them a global success. Russia is spending more than $50 billion on the Olympics, making them the most expensive in history.